A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I recently read two novels by R.C. Sherriff in fairly quick succession – The Fortnight in September (1931) and Greengates (1936) – having never read anything by him before; they were the topic of a podcast I recorded. Both novels were published by Persephone, who have also published The Hopkins Manuscript, which is Sherriff in sci-fi mode – and I’m intrigued to find out what that mode is like. Because the two novels I read offer probably the most unalloyed pleasure I’ve had in reading uncomplex prose in ages.
The plots of both are very simple. In The Fortnight in September, Mr and Mrs Stevens and their three children go on holiday together. In Greengates, Mr and Mrs Baldwin decide to move to a new house when Mr Baldwin retires. There are slight nuances – what will Mr Stevens do about a powerful colleague being at the resort? How will the committee of the Baldwins’ new housing estate be formed? – but there is nothing dramatic in these novels. They simply unfold before us like a soothing pattern of ordinary life.
They sooth because they are ordinary – but they are not twee. In both novels, the characters suffer unease and uncertainty. Mrs Stevens would far rather stay at home than go on their annual outing; the small boarding house they’ve stayed in ever since their marriage is increasingly dilapidated, and they don’t know how long they’ll continue to go. In Greengates, there are many pages of dissatisfaction in retirement – as Mr Baldwin tries to get accustomed to being at home all the time, and Mrs Baldwin similarly tries to adjust – before their brave new future is identified and secured.
But something in Sherriff’s prose levels out anxieties. The only false moves in these novels come when the author forgets his strengths. In The Fortnight in September, for instance, there a moment when Mrs Baldwin is feared drowned, and one where their son Dick goes through an altogether unconvincing and sudden change of heart about his career – both instances belong in a less naturalistic novel. When we turn to the landlady trying to hide her increasingly poorness, or Mrs Stevens’ worrying about having left the window open, we are on safer ground.
I don’t know if either of these novels would be published today. There is something that seems unambitious about Sherriff’s writing – he doesn’t offer a multitude of perspectives or jump around in time; he doesn’t throw in something to make these storylines take a sudden turn for the dark. They begin at the beginning and keep going, at a remarkably measured pace, until they reach the end. It is the craft of novel-writing at its most deceptively simple – because they are somehow gripping without anything remotely tense taking place.
If I were to teach a class in creative writing (and there is no earthly reason why I would), I’d set these novels as homework. Trying to work out how he does it would be a rewarding exercise – or, having said that, perhaps a frustrating one, because I’ve come away with no idea, and plenty of admiration. Thank you, Persephone, for making some of these books available.